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Buying a First Telescope

 

Last updated 12/21/2021 at 2:17pm

During my many public stargazing programs guests frequently ask me, "What kind of telescope should I buy?" My response isn't quite what they expect.

If you're considering presenting that special stargazer in your life with a telescope this holiday season – or even buying one for yourself – you will do well to answer the following important questions before rushing out to spend your hard-earned cash.

First, how well do you (or the gift recipient) know the sky? If you can't distinguish the Ring Nebula from ring bologna, you may wish to purchase a book or collection of star maps instead. Browse a bookstore or telescope shop for suitable material or consider a subscription to some of the basic astronomy magazines available today.

Second, what do you want to observe? If the moon, planets or daytime terrestrial scenery capture your interest, or if you live under light-polluted skies, a smaller diameter telescope (two inches or so) will do fine. Otherwise, you'll need a larger "light bucket" (four inches or more) to see fainter star clusters, nebulae and galaxies, but you'll need to take it to a dark-sky site in the mountains or deserts to use it well.

Finally, what's your budget? Quality telescopes are not toys, and you won't find a decent one for less than about $300 or so.

There are almost as many varieties of telescopes as there are eyeballs to look through them. Fortunately, we can divide them into two basic categories. Refractors are more expensive because they use lenses to bend incoming light to a focus. These are generally smaller instruments and are best for viewing bright objects like the moon and planets. Reflectors use mirrors and, typically, the same price will get you a larger diameter instrument.

No matter which type of telescope you choose, it must be equipped with a rock-solid tripod or mounting in order to be useful. And, as far as the new "go-to" instruments in which a computer aims the telescope for you, I strongly recommend against these for beginners since they're expensive, you'll spend lots of time with the instruction manual learning how to set it up, and you won't learn as much about the sky as you will with a manual scope.

So, here are my recommendations. First, learn the sky with your eyes and binoculars. Second, attend free star parties with your local amateur astronomy club, and get a look through (and at) a variety of scopes. Some are large and expensive, but you'll get a sense of what you can expect from more modest instruments. Finally, visit some telescope company websites and check out basic Dobsonian-style scopes. Coupled with a "Telrad" finder, you'll find these remarkably easy to use, portable and relatively inexpensive. I have two "Dobs" and use them for all kinds of public programs, and since they take only seconds to set up, for myself whenever I want to get a quick look at the sky.

If you keep these simple points in mind, your new backyard telescope will provide you and your family with a wonderful and lifelong tool of discovery and won't wind up in the closet alongside the NordicTrack!

Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com.

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